Dramatic shifts on Northern Ireland protocol signalled amid Prague summit

Key shift in Irish-British relations under way as European leaders meet in Czech capital

When the Lord closes a door, the great country-singer-turned-detective-novelist Kinky Friedman observed, he opens a little window.

The famous Brexit window of opportunity is opening again, Taoiseach Micheál Martin suggested on Thursday as he entered a summit of the 27 EU leaders as well as the heads of government of 17 other countries in Prague Castle.

Speaking to reporters in the castle courtyard on his way into the event this morning, Martin was loath to say much about the protocol, suggesting that everyone should be quiet for a little while to let talks take place. “We need to create space for that to happen,” he said, “so I don’t intend to comment any further.”

British bona fides

The Taoiseach did give one important signal, however. He said he believed that “both sides” were operating in “good faith”. After months and maybe more in which senior Irish and EU officials did not believe in British bona fides on the issue – London had, after all, walked away from an agreement it had recently concluded, threatening in the process to break international law – this is an important shift.


The dramatic shift in tone from London in the past week or so has been very cautiously welcomed by the EU and the Irish Government, but sources at all levels have stressed that they would wait to see what the British were saying in negotiations before they got too excited about a possible resolution.

Martin, informed by his own meeting with Liz Truss and by some contacts between Truss and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, seems prepared to give the UK the benefit of the doubt for now. He obviously thinks there’s a good chance of a deal. And he met Truss again on the margins in Prague earlier on Thursday.

Emollient op-ed

Will the window be climbed through? The signs are better than they have been for a long time. Dublin is very keen for a deal, while London is at least making helpful noises, rather than throwing belligerent shapes. Candidate Truss was drawing applause from Tory backwoodsmen by saying the “jury’s out” on whether Emmanuel Macron was “friend or foe”. On Thursday, as prime minister, Truss was solemnly discussing immigration and nuclear co-operation with him, and writing an emollient op-ed in the Times with seven references to “European friends” and “allies”.

But if the signs are better than they have been for some time, nobody believes this remotely a done deal. If there is to be an agreement on the protocol, the British government will have to accept things that it has previously indicated were red lines (such as acceptance that the text of the protocol stays, and with it the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice), while the EU will have to agree that the practical applications of protection for the single market will be a good deal lighter and leakier than it would consider ideal. That remains a difficult landing ground for both sides to get to.

And remember that windows can serve more than one purpose. It is the people of Prague, after all, who gave to the world the term “defenestration” – for their habit of chucking political opponents out the window as a way of emphasising their disagreement. For now, the talking in Prague Castle and elsewhere continues.